The Voice of the Book

“A man who has read Book XXIV of the Iliad–the night meeting of Priam and Achilles–or the chapter in which Alyosha Karamazov kneels to the stars, who has read Montaigne’s chapter XX (Que philosopher c’est apprendre à mourir) and Hamlet’s use of it–and who is not altered, whose apprehension of his own life is unchanged, who does not, in some subtle yet radical manner, look on the room in which he moves, on those that knock at the door, differently–has read only with the blindness of physical sight. Can one read Anna Karenina or Proust without experiencing a new infirmity or occasion in the very core of one’s sexual feelings? To read well is to take great risks. It is to make vulnerable our identity, our self-possession.”

George Steiner, from the essay Humane Literacy in Language and Silence

Wittgenstein and Dostoyevsky

A great many, perhaps most, of the books I choose to read are a consequence of something I’ve just read, or an intriguing comment on social media. Kaufmann’s The Faith of a Heretic led me to Norman Malcolm’s delightful Wittgenstein memoir, which in turn fixed my resolve to read The Brothers Karamazov. Malcolm’s contention that Wittgenstein considered The House of the Dead Dostoyevsky’s greatest work is unusual in that it is not one of his ‘big four’ novels.

Once when we were conversing Wittgenstein was delighted to learn that I knew Tolstoy’s Twenty-three Tales. He’d had an extremely high opinion of these stories. He questioned me closely to find out whether I had understood the moral of the one entitled ‘How Much Land Does A Man Need?’ Wittgenstein had been stiff with me at the beginning of the conversation because he was displeased with me for a reason I have forgotten. But when he discovered that I had read, understood, and valued Tolstoy’s stories, he became friendly and animated. Wittgenstein also admired the writings of Dostoevsky. He read The Brothers Karamazov and extraordinary number of times, but he once said that The House of the Dead was Dostoevsky’s greatest work.

Memoirs from the House of the Dead is therefore what I’ll read next, in the Jesse Coulson translation.

Notes on Stendhal, via Sebald, Beckett et al.

Sebald chooses soldier, lover and would-be writer Marie-Henri Beyle to open the first section of Vertigo. He never mentions him by his better known pen-name Stendhal, nor does he reveal that his ‘essay’ and photographs are drawn from Stendhal’s fictionalised autobiography La Vie de Henri Brulard.

This first section of Vertigo contrasts the tragedy and comedy of Beyle’s life, using prose and photographs as a form of parallel narrative. Although presented as a historical essay, Sebald uses the text to ask questions of the nature and recording of memory. Aside from drawing me further into his story, Sebald reminds me to continue, at some point, my exploration of Stendhal’s work. A few passages below from notes taken on other writer’s thoughts on Stendhal, and indirectly, comparable writers:

  • “Beckett’s lectures indicate he found paradigms of indeterminacy and incoherence early in the history of the French novel, specifically in the school of the ‘Pre-Naturalists’. Flaubert and Stendhal were his models in this regards, and were given the compliment of being the ‘real ancestors of the modern novel’. What is most important about these writers is that through engaging with the multiple facets of reality through a numbers of modes and perspectives, their work leaves ‘some material indeterminate’. In contrast to Prousts’s vision of aesthetic consolation and transcendence, there is ‘No such solution on Stendhal’.” (Beckett and the Modern Novel. 2012)
  • “[…] reservations regarding linearity and continuity may have directed Beckett’s thoughts toward the tradition of doubting a uniquely rationalist view of the world. In the notes on Stendhal in Beckett’s Dream Notebook from the early 1930s the word imprévu is found three times. In his letter dated 16 September 1934 to Thomas McGreevy, Beckett also quotes from Stendhal: ‘Maintenant la civilisation a chassé le hasard, plus d’imprévu. [Nowadays civilisation has eliminated chance, and the unexpected never happens.] Beckett is interested in Stendhal’s complaint about a world that is ruled by linear sequences of cause and effect.” (Beckett and Musicality. 2014)
  • Contrasting with his aversion to Balzac, Beckett thought Flaubert and Stendhal the ‘real ancestors of the modern novel’; “the former for his ‘impersonality’ of style and the ‘absence of purpose’ in his texts, and the latter for ‘his deliberately incoherent duality’ – his presentation of contrasting components without resolution, and the convenient ‘implication that [the] psychological real can’t be stated, [that is] imperceptible from every point of view.'” (Rachel Burrow’s lecture notes, via Briggite Le Juez)
  • “The secret of Stendhal may be that he conceived of life as a novel, but did not confuse the novel with life. He improvises because he knows that he is not Shakespeare; he cannot write as life does. Who, besides Shakespeare, could? Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Homer, the Bible, and post-Stendhal-Tolstoy, Proust, Joyce. Stendhal would not prevent to be of that visionary company, but he did not need to be.” (Harold Bloom, 2002)
  • In 1914 Ezra Pound wrote of Joyce, about the prose style of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, “[…] His style has the hard clarity of a Stendhal or of a Flaubert.” Also, “I think the book is permanent like Flaubert and Stendhal. Not so squarish as Stendhal, certainly not so varnished as Flaubert. I think [Joyce] joins on to Hardy and Henry James.” (Ellman, Letters, II)
  • “‘I admire him, not as a model, but as a better self, one that I shall never really be, not fro a moment,’ said Elias Canetti. Inspired by the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, he used to turn to Stendhal, reading a few pages of Le rouge et le noir each day to keep his language fit and the detail precise and sufficient. For his part Stendhal dod not go to fiction, but getting himself in voice to dictate La Chartreuse he told Balzac in 1840 that he read two or three pages of the Code Napoléon to establish the objective tome, to be always natural, and never to use factitious means to intrigue the reader. No wonder Ford described him as ‘a cold Nietzsche.'” (Michael Schmidt. The Novel. 2014)

Book List

In no particular order, this is a list of my favourite writers/books. Of course, it is incomplete.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, Pale Fire and Speak, Memory and literary lectures
Franz Kafka
Geoff Dyer
JG Ballard
Simone de Beauvoir
Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook
Hélène Cixous
Judith Butler
Peter Handke’s The Weight of the World
Søren Kierkegaard
Marguerite Duras
JM Coetzee
Robert Walser
Roland Barthes
Nadine Gordimer’s The Pickup
Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
Pascal Quignard’s The Roving Shadows
John William’s Stoner
Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea
AM Homes
Patrick Leigh Fermor
Jay Griffith’s Wild: An Elemental Journey
Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s War and War
Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness
Samuel Beckett
Simon Critchley
Noam Chomsky
Roger Deakin
Carlos Fuentes’s Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone
Ruth Reichl’s Endless Feast
Teju Cole’s Open City
Jenny Erpenbeck’s The Visitation
Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism? and The Lessons of Modernism
Virginia Woolf’s later novels and diaries
Jospeh Heller’s Something Happened
WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn
Don DeLillo’s Underworld
Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia
Kate Chopin’s The Awakening
Marcel Proust
Clarice Lispector’s Água Viva
Dante’s Divine Comedy
Kate Zambreno’s Heroines
Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych
James Joyce’s Ulysses
Richard Power’s The Time of our Singing
Will Ferguson’s Hokkaido Highway Blues

The Possessed by Elif Batuman

Tolstoy liked Chekhov on first meeting, saying, “He is full of talent and undoubtedly has a very good heart.” That the sentiment applies equally to Elif Batuman is the concluding impression on finishing The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them.

Describing the book as a “volume of memoiristic literary-critical essays about the experiences of a graduate student of Russian literature” Batuman has explained, “The Possessed is not the book I meant to write – it’s not how I meant to write it.” The statement would apply to most of Geoff Dyer’s books, a writer with much in common with Elif Batuman. Though these essays are purportedly about the major Russian writers, in practise these are a framework for her to digress enthusiastically about multifarious subjects including theory, the difficulties of translation and watermelon selection.

Though the quality is uneven, all seven essays display Batuman’s wit and erudition, and I could happily have read another seven. My favourite is the three-part Summer in Samarkand, a beautifully evocative piece of writing, revealing of both place and the characters Batuman met. Her carefully selected words to describe a language teacher: “Muzaffar, a philosophy graduate student, had pale skin, pale almond eyes, high cheekbones, and a floppy, sad, puppetlike comportment”, contrasts with the more rococo portrayal of the Vice-Rector Safarov, “a personage whose refrigerator-like build, rubbery face, and heavy eyelids brought to mind some anthropomorphic piece of furniture in a Disney movie.”

Batuman’s The Possessed sits at ease beside the essays of Geoff Dyer or Dubravka Ugrešić and I await with interest whatever she writes next.

Invoking the Sanity Clause

Fiorello: Hey, wait, wait. What does this say here, this thing here?
Driftwood: Oh, that? Oh, that’s the usual clause that’s in every contract. That just says, uh, it says, uh, if any of the parties participating in this contract are shown not to be in their right mind, the entire agreement is automatically nullified.
Fiorello: Well, I don’t know…
Driftwood: It’s all right. That’s, that’s in every contract. That’s, that’s what they call a sanity clause.
Fiorello: Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! You can’t fool me. There ain’t no Sanity Clause!

The first film that the Marx Brothers made for MGM, A Night at the Opera is on my list of top-5 films. The scene above never fails to brighten my mood.

I am invoking the Sanity Clause on my participation in the Art of the Novella Reading Challenge. Thirteen books down, I am beyond Passionate. With the last novella, I reached my delight ceiling and this challenge began to feel less like fun and more like hard slog. For the rest of the month I’ll be cheerleading Frances in her continued attempt to read all 42 novellas in the series.

The thirteen books I read for the Art of the Novella Reading Challenge were:

  1. Benito Cereno by Herman Melville
  2. First Love by Ivan Turgenev
  3. The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg by Mark Twain
  4. The Duel by Joseph Conrad
  5. The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
  6. My Life by Chekhov
  7. Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia by Samuel Johnson
  8. Stempenyu: A Jewish Romance by Sholem Aleichem
  9. The Devil by Tolstoy
  10. The Awakening by Kate Chopin
  11. The Death of Ivan Ilych by Tolstoy
  12. The Nice Old Man and the Pretty Girl by Italo Svevo
  13. Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley
Two of the thirteen I disliked, and two I thought first-rate. The others brought pleasure. There are some brilliant stories in the remaining twenty-nine novellas, which I look forward to reading at a more leisurely pace. For now, having digested thirteen new stories and many more memorable characters, I have binged on fiction. It is time for a little poetry, some diaries perhaps and non-fiction.

The Nice Old Man and the Pretty Girl by Italo Svevo

Hogarth Edition

One of those writers I keep meaning to get around to, Italo Svevo’s best known work is The Confessions of Zeno. Svevo was tutored by James Joyce, then an English teacher at the Berlitz school in Trieste. Joyce reputedly used Svevo as his model for Leopold Bloom. This English edition of The Nice Old Man and the Pretty Girl was translated by the Woolf’s Hogarth Press. Translated by Lacy Collison-Morley, the translation was criticised in the TLS review (1931): ” … important qualities of the Italian edition [are] missing from the English translation.”

In common with Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan IlychSvevo deals with mortality and sexual obsession. Tonally the two books could not be more different, instead of Tolstoy’s lacerating prose The Nice Old Man and the Pretty Girl has a toothsome, ironic tone. The theme is the perennial morality of old men desiring young women, and the consequences of taking action. My expectations for the book were greater than my enjoyment, but I found pleasure in the depiction of the old man and his moral vacillations.

The Death of Ivan Ilych by Tolstoy

Opisthotonus by Charles Bell

Mortality is the theme of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych, an unrelenting story, after which you will pray that when your time comes, the ending is quick.

The novella opens with Ivan Ilych’s funeral, clear is the self-interest of his widow and colleagues. This same self-interest is at the heart of Ivan Ilych’s life. Bullied by his wife, Ilych indulges his authority as a judge. Tolstoy’s description of the loneliness of the failed marriage is dazzling.

There were still occasional stirrings of affection, but they didn’t last long; they were islets where the couple might anchor for awhile, knowing they’d nonetheless have to set out again on a sea of veiled enmity that was expressed in their alienation from each other.

His preoccupation with power and status comes to an abrupt end when Ilych falls ill. Though he soon learns his illness is terminal, doctors debate the precise diagnosis. With the clarity of those in excruciating pain, Ilych sees the disinterest and disregard of those around him. As he approaches death Ilych sees the futility of his life; in the midst of a harrowing death, he discovers selflessness.

Unlike The Devil, this is a fully developed, outstanding novella. Tolstoy’s depiction of a terminal illness is shredding in its power. A scene in which Ilych’s family stand beside his sick-bed, ready for a night at the opera, is every bit as potent as the closing scene in Kafka’s Metamorphosis.

The Devil by Tolstoy

Choosing to entitle his tale of sexual obsession The Devil, Tolstoy signifies that our sympathy should not lie with aristocratic landowner Yevgeny Irtenev. As a young man of “twenty-six, of medium height, strongly built […] fullblooded and his whole neck very red,” Irtenev moves from Petersburg to the country, to restore his family’s fortune. Unable to cope with sexual self-restraint, Irtenev engages his aristocratic privilege with a “tasty morsel” of a girl from a peasant family. Slowly his physical urges become compulsion:

It is simply necessary for my health,” thought Yevgeny, “I grant it is not right, and though no one says anything, everybody, or many people, know of it. The woman who comes with her knows. And once she knows she is sure to have told others. But what’s to be done? I am acting badly,” thought Yevgeny, “but what’s one to do? Anyhow it is not for long.”

Marriage and fatherhood appears to offer Irtenev respite, until he bumps into his peasant mistress, whereupon his compulsion develops into obsession. Recognising the risk to his reputation and marriage he resolves to kill his mistress, or his wife, or himself. The story is presented with a choice of two endings.

Both endings feel compressed, the story itself feels like a draft, fascinating as a study of sexual obsession, but lacking cohesion as a story.

Tolstoy’s descriptions are enjoyable, of Irtenev above, or contrasting his wife: “Liza was tall, slender, and long. […] The colour of her face was very delicate, creamy white and delicately pink…,” with his mistress Stepanida, with her “bright, black eyes, […] deep voice” and a “scent of something fresh and strong.” It isn’t subtle.

[Read as part of Frances’s and Melville House’s The Art of the Novella Reading Challenge.]

Fondling Detail

Like gratin dauphinoise or silky foie gras Don Quixote has left me stuffed, unable to do more than graze. It is rare I start a second book while committed to a first, but I have begun the first volume of Virginia Woolf’s diaries, Leonard Woolf’s autobiography, Thomas Bernhard’s memoirs, Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: A Life of Montaigne, David Crystal’s The Stories of English and am still rereading Borge’s Ficciones. Each captures my attention for an hour or two but I soon am distracted by another voice.

To add anchovies to the dauphinoise (as you really must), I started leafing through Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature. Nabby is just the professor to call attention to one’s inadequacies as a reader. His minute examination of Madame Bovary accentuate texture and detail I am barely aware of after rereading twice. I must surely reread again soon with the help of Nabokov’s gimlet eyes. “In reading, one should notice and fondle details.” Here, he elucidates the difference between master artists and minor authors:

Time and space, the colours of the seasons, the movements of muscles and minds, all these are for writers of genius (as far as we can guess and I trust we guess right) not traditional notions which may be borrowed from the circulating library of public truths but a series of unique surprises which master artists have learned to express in their own unique way. To minor authors is left the interpretation of the commonplace: these do not bother about any reinventing of the world; they merely try to squeeze the best they can out of a given order of things, out of traditional patterns of fiction. The various combinations these minor authors are able to produce within these set limits may be quite amusing in a mild ephemeral way because minor readers like to recognise their own ideas in a pleasing disguise.

Detect that wonderfully icy disdain, rolling down from that ivory tower? When reading, Nabokov let no detail pass unquestioned. In works of genius, every detail had a purpose and was worthy of minute examination. “Any ass can assimilate the main points of Tolstoy’s attitude toward adultery but in order to enjoy Tolstoy’s art the good reader must wish to visualise, for instance, the arrangement of a railway carriage on the Moscow-Petersburg night train as it was a hundred years ago.”

We should always remember that the work of art is invariably the creation of a new world, so that the first thing we should do is study that new world as closely as possible approaching it as something brand new, having no obvious connection with the worlds we already know. When this new world has been closely studied, then and only then let us examine its links with other brands of knowledge.